Structural Curriculum: On Context and “Conceptual Options”

Posted on July 8, 2012


Like many teachers, I’m spending a good part of summer rethinking my class–how I’ve organized it, how I announce and reinforce my emphases, all that stuff. I’ve been reading a lot. Taking notes. Inventing fake course outlines, and trying to imagine the bigger picture of my class. In short, I’m trying to find a way to emphasize the “structural” approach to visual communication that my class embraces, which means I’ve been thinking a lot about how I contextualize our discussions and in-class investigations, because structures are not, in and of themselves, necessarily self-evident. It’s about where you stand in relation to the structure you’re regarding. At some point I’ll post some of the results of this thinking and planning, but for now I thought I’d post the paragraph that I have hanging over my desk at the moment that lays out this problem very nicely. It’s from James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968).

Anything is a structure. If we presuppose that some things are structures and other things are substantive elements which go into structures, we have trapped ourselves at the outset. Everything is both, which is to say that things and relations are matters of conceptual option. To understand the option one is playing one must be aware of where one has mentally placed himself. A tree is an element in a landscape, a thing, until we choose to isolate the tree, at which time it becomes a structure (if we talk about it at all) or set of relations among trunk, limbs, and branches. By calling something a structure, we mean that we are preferring to strip it of context, in fact to make it itself the context for some smaller structures. A molecule is a structure of atoms, which are structures of smaller “things,” etc. A word is an element in a sentence….In this “infinite regress of contexts,” as Gregory Batson has called it, elements stake out the field of vision, and relations among the elements rope it off; one does not see beyond, because “beyond” is where one is looking from (5).

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